Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Name and a Memory

This isn't exactly a cheerful post, but visiting the Holocaust Museum here in Jerusalem was an incredibly powerful experience. It's taken me some time to be ready to share my thoughts about it, even though my words can't begin to convey what I saw and how I felt. We traveled to Yad Vashem with our Judaism professor, Ophir Yarden, last Monday. The name of Yad Vashem is taken from Isaiah, who tells of the  Lord's promise to give his sons & daughters an everlasting name (56:5).

On my first trip to Yad Vashem in 1994, I only visited the children's memorial, as children under the age of 10 are not permitted inside the main museum. My wonderful mother held me and played with me on the hilltop that memorializes the lives of the millions of Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Yad Vashem was stunning. I really don't have words to accurately describe the powerful emotions it triggered within me...I just can't imagine such callous, reckless, calculated hatred. It really is too much to take in, and I was going through the exhibits slowly, so I ran out of time towards the end. I can't decide if I want to go back... The museum itself was very well done, lots of vivid displays, huge blown-up photographs, and actual artifacts. They used a lot of journal entries to illustrate the reality of what the Jews faced and what the Nazi leaders felt (seemingly nothing akin to empathy). As I was somewhat rushing through the final stories from the latter years of the War, I did stop to read about the Bulgarian Jews; the Bulgarian rulers changed their minds at the last minute, just before the final trains to the death camps were scheduled to be loaded, and didn't deport their Jews--so many lives saved... but still so many lost. It really is too big to comprehend. The last exhibit in the museum is a massive circular room lined with black bookshelves, organized alphabetically (in Hebrew) of the names of all of the people who were murdered; each person has a page or two of their information--photos, journal excerpts, etc. It made it just barely comprehensible; too many names for each to be displayed individually; they had to be pages of books that still filled an enormous room from floor to ceiling. In the center of the room, there was a deep well cut into the bedrock below the museum, with a little water at the bottom. I heard someone say that it represented the tears of the people, but to me it seemed like it could have also been an allusion to the many who died standing on the edge of a pit, waiting for the report before the dark free fall. Standing there, listening to all the different languages being whispered around me and seeing all of those books filled with fragments from the stories that had all been cut short... I couldn't handle it nor could I master my emotions. I can only begin to grasp the true nature of such deliberate devastation.

Inside the children's memorial at Yad Vashem. (Photo cred: Spence Anopol)

We actually started our visit to Yad Vashem by exploring the hill around the museum, walking the Avenue of the Righteous (trees planted to honor the people who saved Jews), then we visited the Children's Memorial. It's beautiful, but haunting, and holds an ache that I don't think could ever be totally soothed. As you enter, there is a large display of enlarged photographs of some of the 1.5 million children who were killed, then you walk into a room that is almost completely dark, with only a single candle. But the room is filled with mirrors, so the candle is reflected millions of times, echoing the Biblical quote that graces the gateway to the memorial, invoking the Lord's promise to Abraham that his seed would be as numberless as the stars. As you walk through, the names and ages of the children are uttered; some I heard were three or six years old. It might seem strange to say I loved that place, because I've never experienced anything that made me feel quite the way that did, but I think an abstract memorial like that was the only thing that could ever convey such sorrow and tragedy. Those bright little stars were extinguished far too soon in this life; any sort of factual representation would have been too real, too cold, to comprehend. I can't imagine the agony of the mothers who knew what their children were facing...

All of those tiny lights and names are not something I'll soon forget.


Goojah Mama said...

Thank you for sharing your emotion and thoughts after visiting Yad Vashem again. It leaves us with a greater sense of understanding of the human spirit gone wrong and right.

I will always hold our visit there with you close to my heart. Only a mother can understand a mothers love.

With so much love for you,

Jaynee said...

so heartbreaking. sounds like an incredible experience